This New York wooden house is a model of modern sustainability


There are three topics I often write about on Treehugger: hardwood, Passivhaus, and bike activism. They all converge strangely towards Timber house—located at 670 Union Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn—where Eric Liftin of MESH architectures designed and realized a solid wood condominium project almost Passivhaus.

The bike activism aspect comes from Aaron Naparstek, the founder of Streetsblog and one of the three maintainers of my favorite podcast, “car war. He lives down the street from 670 Union and knew the family who owned two homes on the site. After the death of the family patriarch, Naparstek helped the family clean up the financial mess they found themselves in. He knew Liftin and The Brooklyn Welcoming Societyand they eventually assembled four properties and co-developed the project.

MESH architectures describe itself as “a hybrid architectural practice spanning the physical and the virtual” that “always explores new materials and technologies”. It is therefore not surprising that Liftin chose to build in solid wood.

Mark Travis

The building is described on Dezeen as New York’s “largest log building”, but that ignores the many warehouses and factories built 150 years ago from large wooden columns and beams, with a “mill top”, or timber standing and nailed together. It is still in use and is now called glued laminated timber (NLT). There is nothing new in solid wood; there’s not even anything new about gluing small pieces of wood together to make bigger pieces of wood.

What has changed is the recognition of the sustainable characteristics of wood: wood is a renewable resource that does not have the upfront carbon emissions that you get when making concrete or steel. Plus, as Liftin notes, “Wood is beautiful. Its inherent warmth and texture means we don’t need to recoat or finish it, resulting in less waste overall.”

But nothing is ever easy in New York. While codes have changed to allow larger log buildings from modern materials like cross-laminated timber (CLT) in other cities, the building commissioner was hesitant to use the new CLT at the time of the asks, so Liftin used glued laminated timber (GLT) because he has exists since 1901 and was already in the building codes.

Mark Travis

GLT is more commonly known as glulam and is commonly found in columns, beams and arches, but can also be cut into slabs. It is made of wooden slats (lams) glued together with glue, and with the grain of all the parallel slats. It is a “unidirectional” slab which must be supported on beams. The big advantage of CLT is that it is a “two-way” slab that can be supported on columns, and because it is made up of layers of wood laid at 90 degrees to each other, it is more dimensionally stable.

Liftin could have specified NLT but told Treehugger that he didn’t like the unfinished look of the NLT he had access to and preferred the smooth CLT-like finished look of the GLT from Vaagen Wood. From the occupant’s perspective, the only difference is that you are looking at the edges of the blades rather than the side, and there is a 3/8″ expansion gap between the tiles. They are topped with a layer of insulation and lightweight concrete.

Check out our guide to all these different types of solid wood here, which starts with GLT.

Custom tiles meet wood flooring.

Matthew Williams

The building also resembles a Passivhaus design, with triple-glazed windows, an Intello+ smart air barrier, all hermetically sealed with Tescon Vana tapes, and Zehnder energy recovery ventilators for fresh air. However, it is not certified to the standard; Liftin is trained and certified as a Passivhaus designer, but tells Treehugger he doesn’t think buyers will care.

An all-electric kitchen with an induction hob.

Mark Travis

Also unusual for New York, there is no gas line; heating and cooling are done with heat pumps. Liftin explains: “We envision a near future where most of our electricity will be generated from renewable sources, so we use electricity for everything, rather than burning fossil fuels (and having to vent harmful gases). “ He adds that “before, it was difficult to convince people to stop using petrol, but not anymore”.

There is secure parking for 33 bicycles and the parking spaces have charging stations. Liftin told Treehugger that “nobody drives here” and he didn’t want to provide as many parking spaces as he did, but development partners were worried they didn’t have any.

MESH architectures

They stopped building with wood in New York over a century ago after catastrophic fires. When the first new log building in New York was proposed by SHoP Architects in 2015 for a site in Chelsea, there were many opposition from firefighters who expressed “serious concerns” saying, “We have a long history of problems with lumber in New York, and that’s why we don’t allow it.” This project was never builtbut anyone who has ever worked on a building knows the power of firefighters to step in and demand change – it happened to me.

So when Naparstek started telling me about a squad of firefighters arriving on site, I just imagined them saying something like, “Cover all that exposed wood with drywall or no occupation!” And there would be nothing you could do.

But Naparstek describes how Liftin was there at the time and explained how solid wood was tested and approved, showed them around, and then they left as if they had taken a field trip. So much has changed in just a few years.

MESH architectures

There’s so much to love about this building for a tree lover, solid wood construction, close to Passivhaus specs, elimination of natural gas, and parking for more than twice as many bikes as there are no units. It’s important to note that there isn’t a vast underground concrete iceberg full of cars, and at six stories it fits right in with the neighborhood. It’s a great model for urban development just about anywhere.

Watch the construction video and see how it is built in wood from the ground floor.


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